Jdub’s Unforgettable Drive, California State Route 17 San Jose to Santa Cruz


      If you like getting out and enjoy seeing new places, follow along and I will point you to a drive where you can explore as little or as much as you like. Where trees are as big as sky scrapers and the surf is as powerful as a freight train. The only thing is when you go on this drive you will be farther away from civilization yet unbelievably close to it.
     My drive starts out in the hustling bustling silicon valley of San Jose, California and ends up in the tree lined cliffs of surf city Santa Cruz.
     We begin our journey in San Jose where you can grab a bite before we start what will be an unforgettable drive and a fun filled day. If you are in the mood for BBQ I would recommend  Henry’s Hi-Life located just west of downtown. There you will enjoy Santa Maria style smoked BBQ where the tri-tip is king and garlic bread is boss. Once finished with lunch start out heading to freeway 880 south which turns into State Route 17 south. When you get to the Town of Los Gatos there is another great place to eat, the Los Gatos Meat and Smokehouse. There you will find all sorts of meats from chicken to sliced beef. They even process wild game. My favorite here is the BBQ tri-tip sandwich, which may be the best tri-tip sandwich I have ever had, But I warn you do not try to eat this in your car as it is quite messy.

Base of fallen tree in Big Basin

      Ok, enough about food, lets get driving. We start out on 17 and immediately begin our climb into the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the further you drive, the taller the trees become. Almost instantly you move from the concrete city and suburbs into a thick dense forest  filled with giant redwoods and pine trees. The road gets somewhat winding and the views of trees are all around. At this point we have a decision to make, keep on this road to Santa Cruz or take a side journey to see some of the tallest redwoods south of San Francisco in Big Basin State Park. Once there you will see the 329-foot mother-of-the-forest tree, which is the tallest of the Big Basin redwoods. You will also see the tree named father-of-the-forest, which is estimated to be 2,000 years old. To get to Big Basin take the the exit for Big Basin, which is called Mount Herman Road. When you get to hwy 9 make a right, when you get to the town Boulder Creek turn left at the stop sign which is Big Basin Hwy or 236. Drive for nine miles on 236 to the park headquarters and park. You will want to check in at park headquarters to pay a small $10 per vehicle fee and get a map to go on a self guided walk which is around a quarter mile on a loop trail. From the trail you will see all of the tall trees Big Basin State Park has to offer.
      On your way back to Santa Cruz from Big Basin you will wind back through small mountain towns. Once in Santa Cruz you will stay on Ocean Street until you reach Water Street, turn right,  then turn left on either Pacific Avenue or Center Street. This route will take you through downtown Santa Cruz where you will find all sorts of restaurants, bars, and small shops to explore. If you have kids be sure to drive all the way down Center Street and turn left when you reach the pier at Beach Street to access the world famous Santa Cruz Boardwalk. From here you can play arcade games, ride roller coasters and other amusement rides, or simply walk along the beach.

Sea Otter playing in the thick kelp forest

     You can go to the Santa Cruz Wharf where you will find kayak and boat rentals. The pier is also a good jumping off point to go fishing, whale watching, or kayaking. There are also shops and places to eat.

Caspian Tern

   Santa Cruz has more surprises in store when you head back north via 2nd Street to Center Street, then left  to Beach Street, except this time turn right to access West Cliff Drive. Stay on Cliff Drive to see the awesome beauty of the Santa Cruz coastline. Enjoy free parking along the cliffs where you can walk and see many sea mammals like sea lions and sea otters. Park by the lighthouse and walk along the railing and watch as expert surfers climb around the railing and head off to the end of the rocks and jump into the surf known locally as “Steamer Lane”. Feeling adventurous? Climb over the railing yourself for a closer look at the sea lions lying on the rocks. Do not touch the sea lions as they are protected, also you should maintain a fair amount of space between you and them. Also be careful to stay away from the cliff edge as it is a long way down into the surf and rocks below. If you have your own kayak there are two sets of stairs that you can use to launch from if the surf is low, if the surf is up don’t risk it and launch at the beach. Also, try to steer your kayak away from the cliffs when the surf is up. From a kayak you can see marine birds, seals, and otters up close and personal. Otters are hard to spot, listen for the tell tale sound of cracking shells as they eat shell fish off their bellies.

      Head farther up Cliff Drive and you will find more rocky coastline and picturesque arches. At the end of Cliff Drive you will get to Natural Bridges State Beach.

View of the Boardwalk from the lighthouse

     After a long day you can grab a room at the Santa Cruz Holiday Inn Express, this is a newer Holiday Inn Express with nice rooms and free breakfast. For more places to stay click here.
      A few places to eat at in Santa Cruz include Caffe Lucio. They have good happy hour specials and a nice selection of authentic Italian dishes. Do not forget to try the pizza, it is the best around. Red Restaurant and Bar has a nice ambiance located upstairs it is quiet and airy with large open windows; the food is fresh using local organic produce. I highly recommend the bruschetta as an appetizer. If your in the mood for Hawaiian there is Pono Hawaiian Grill. The atmosphere at Pono is loud and casual, its a place where you place your order, take a seat, and listen to live entertainment while placing a drink order at the Reef Bar.

     As you can see there are many activities one can do in and around Santa Cruz. It is a destination that has it all no matter what may interest you. You can see it all in a day or you can spend several days and explore deeper. But I hope you will experience this unforgettable drive. Now get out and explore!!!